How My Monthly Budget Looks in 2015

In , I went through my annual ritual of carrying around a notebook and keeping track of every time I spent money. I do this to double-check that my spending is sustainable under my deliberately limited income.

In order to meet that goal, my taxable expenses should add up to less than the Adjusted Gross Income ceiling that I need to stay below in order to keep my federal income tax at zero. This year, that means $18,000 annually, or $1,500 per month.

My taxable expenses don’t include business expenses, which get subtracted from my gross business income before they have a chance to show up as Adjusted Gross Income. They also don’t include medical expenses, which I can pay for with pre-tax money via my Health Savings Account. And they don’t include contributions to tax-deferred retirement accounts (I contribute to an IRA and a SEP plan).

I took the numbers from what I explicitly spent this month and then added in a few more items: estimates for my utility bills based on those from previous months, an estimate of my average monthly expenses on cat stuff (my spending for my expensive, diabetic cat comes in bursts at irregular intervals, so it’s hard to account for by looking at an individual month’s expenses), my charitable donations (which I’ve been keeping track of throughout the year for the first time this year), and a few regular expenses that I didn’t happen to spend anything on this month but that I do spend money on throughout the year and so I felt I should include in the tally (hosting fees and domain name registration for this site, for instance). Here is what I found from this year:

CategoryDaily expenseMonthly expense
Food (groceries)$14.62$445.02
Cat stuff$5.48$166.83
Commercial beer/wine/booze$5.28$160.78
Utilities & internet$3.29$100.10
Food (eating out)$1.60$48.68
California state taxes$0.94$28.72

(The numbers may not all add up quite right due to rounding. Also, I adjusted some of the 31-day October totals to correspond to the average 30.4-day month.)

I started separating California state sales tax into its own line item, and I have combined that with my expected California income tax bill (I don’t resist my state tax, just as a matter of picking my battles) for the “California state taxes” line.

There were a few unusual expenses of note this month. My cat had another health meltdown (I’ve tried to average the cat expenses over the year, so this month doesn’t stand out in the figures above as much as it did in reality). My big frivolous expense was to take a bus up to San Francisco to join a couple of friends at a Dean Ween Group concert. A generous friend bought me a ticket to the show, but between the Greyhound ride there and back, a CalTrain ride or two, dinner, and a round of drinks at the show, it turned out to be a pretty expensive free ticket.

I also spent one pamper-myself evening at a wine bar with a good book, and joined some friends for dinner & drinks at a Mexican restaurant one evening. About half of my monthly alcohol expenses come from the above three nights, which goes to show just how expensive it can be to go out and booze it up.

Those Greyhound & CalTrain tickets I mentioned amount for most of my unusually high transportation expenses this month. I also borrowed someone’s car to run some errands and topped off the gas tank before returning it, and I shelled out for some rain gear to wear while riding my bike, in preparation for the upcoming El Niño.

My coffee budget is higher than usual, too. Partly this is because we had some internet connectivity issues and I ducked out to a cafe where I could get on-line. Partly it’s because I’ve developed a taste for freshly-roasted beans I can get from a roaster down the street but that are pricier than what you can get on the grocery store shelves. And partly it’s just from enjoying popping in for a cappuccino somewhere from time to time and getting out of the office to work. This is definitely an area where I’ve lost some of my zest for frugality.

A supermarket near my house went out of business, so late in the month I stocked up on some things they were unloading cheap. I’m buying groceries and preparing meals for two people, which also boosts my grocery budget. I do most of my produce, eggs, and meat shopping at farmers’ markets, which can be more expensive than grocery stores, particularly for the eggs and meat. I should try a vegetarian diet some month as an experiment to see how just eliminating meat would effect my food budget.

There are clearly a number of areas in which I can tighten the belt further pretty easily if I want to.

I had some crazy idea several months ago that I might itemize deductions this year because my health expenses have been much higher than usual. But because I paid those expenses from my tax-free Health Savings Account, it turns out that I can’t also take an itemized deduction for them. However, before I figured this out, I started also keeping track of my charitable donations because if I were going to itemize, I could add those to the list of deductions (or some of them, anyway: only some of my donations were to tax-deductible charities).

Despite having read a pretty good book on the “effective altruism” movement earlier this year, my own charitable endeavors are pretty amateurish. Usually I hear about (or remember about) some cause or campaign I think sounds pretty neat, and then dash off a check for some amount that doesn’t seem like it will sting too much at the moment. The effective altruism people think I should find one charity that promises the most bang for the buck and then give them everything I can afford right away. They have a point. But for whatever reason I feel more motivated to give in the way that I do, and that extra motivation counts for something.

For what it’s worth, some of the causes I’ve supported this year include the Prisoners Literature Project, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the War Tax Resisters Penalty Fund, the Chelsea Manning defense fund, a local community garden in progress, GiveDirectly, the Institute for Justice, an ad campaign targeting U.S. terror drone operators, a friend in the Avon Breast Cancer Walk, HelpMeSee, a couple of war tax resisters in bad financial straits, the GnuPG project, and Try Freedom Stories. I also try to send copies of my books to tax resisters who have to spend any time behind bars, but this is arguably promotional rather than charitable, I suppose.

Here’s how my current burn rate compares with past years (I’ve had to rejuggle the numbers a bit so that the categories remain the same from year to year; and in many past years I didn’t account for sales tax separately, which probably messes up the numbers a bit):

monthly totals
Monthly total$1,173.96$1,659.13
Yearly total$14,087$19,910
Food (groceries)$201.18$445.02
Internet (hosting) fees$13.95$13.53
Food (eating out)$31.97$48.68

Some of the numbers compare awkwardly. For example, at some points in the past I have lived in places where utilities were included in the rent, which had the effect of raising the rent and lowering the explicit utility payments. Today, we pay the utilities ourselves, so the situation is reversed. I also get a reduction in rent in exchange for buying the bulk of our household groceries, so, when compared to past years, my grocery budget (and some of the drinks-of-vice and miscellany budget) is elevated as a result while my rent is artificially low.

A $19,910/year burn rate is not sustainable given my current technique of staying below the tax line by keeping my adjustable gross income below $18,000. If I want to keep doing this without digging myself in a hole, I need to trim some of the fat. Good to know. I’ve clearly started to slack on my self-discipline (since when did pampering myself at a wine bar become a good idea for gosh’s sakes?).

Here are the results from years past, if you’d like to compare: